HMS GORGON & THE ‘BOTANY BAY ESCAPEES’

‘I confess that I never looked at these people [Botany Bay escapees] without pity and astonishment. They had miscarried in a Heroic struggle for liberty after having combated every hardship and conquered every difficulty’. Watkin Tench at Cape Town aboard HMS Gorgan, March 1792. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson 1961

1791 – 21 September, Sydney Cove: HMS Gorgan arrived at Sydney in September 1791 tasked with returning marines of the Sydney Garrison to England.

Six (6) months earlier, in March, the hustle and bustle surrounding the departure of Waaksamheyd a Dutch ship that arrived from Jakarta (December 1790) and saved the Sydney settlement from starvation, helped divert attention when, at midnight on 28 March 1791, convicts William and Mary Bryant, their children Charlotte three (3) years and baby Emanuel, with seven (7) convict companions, oars muffled on a stolen rowing boat – Governor Phillip’s own cutter – slipped silently out of Sydney Harbour and set course for Timor.

‘In writing of the recruitment of criminals into the armed forces, Stephen Conway observed, ‘It was still found necessary periodically to clear both the putrid and congested gaols and the equally overcrowded and insanitary hulks’. Conway, cited Alan Frost, Botany  Bay Mirages, Melbourne University Press, 1994.

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: The ‘First Fleet’ a large convoy of eleven (11) ships headed by HMS Sirius with a complement of 1500 souls – one-half convicted criminals, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN  sailed from England bound for Botany Bay to invade and conquer the island continent of New Holland, now Australia.

All male convicts were rationed ‘as troops serving in the West Indies’. See: All the King’s Men – Criminals of the First Fleet

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: After a voyage of eight (8) months voyaging 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ the fleet reached Botany Bay in mid-January 1788. See: Apollo 11 – Fly Me To the Moon

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: Four (4) days later La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, (2) French ships commanded by Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse, appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay. Sirius’s cannon and bad weather forced them to seek safety and shelter at Sutherland Point.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: At dawn Captain Phillip left Botany Bay aboard HMS Supply sailed nine (9) miles (14) km north to Port Jackson where three (3) days prior – 21 January – leading a scouting party he rowed through towering headlands into a vast harbour.

‘Here’ he wrote a thousand Ships of the Line may ride in perfect Security…My Lord, I think that perseverance will answer every purpose proposed by Government’. Governor Phillip to William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, Marquis of Lansdowne. Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, Oxford University Press, 1998

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: At first light Phillip landed with marines, raised the Union Jack in a ‘snug cove’ and proclaimed Britain’s victory over France. By 8 pm that evening the remainder of the fleet lay at anchor alongside Supply. See: Australia: Britain By A Short Half-HeadCaptain Arthur Phillip & Comte La Perouse

1788 – 28th: By the end of January all the men had landed. For a frantic fortnight male convicts supervised by marines worked tirelessly to clear the area and erect a tent town.

1788- 6 February: ‘Between 6 am and 6 pm’ one hundred and eighty-nine (189) prisoners and thirty-one (31) wives of rank and file marines were rowed ashore from the ships that had been their home for just on a year.

1788 – 7 February,Sydney Cove: At midday on the 7th, Captain now Governor Phillip, with what Captain Tench described as; ‘the pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ – without consent of the First Australians whose land it was claimed British sovereignty of New Holland ‘from Cape York to South Cape’. See: A Cracker-Jack Opinion – No Sweat

In war and peace dominance over the southern oceans guaranteed Britain safe alternate supply and logistical sea routes to and from India  China and raised the alluring possibility of gaining access to the treasures of Spanish South America.

‘In determining the daily rations…no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts…the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, ed. W. Hugh Oldham, Library of Australian History, Sydney 1990

The permanent military and naval bases Britain established at Sydney were to be manned, as was traditional at that time, by a combined force of enlisted men and convicts taken from England’s ‘putrid gaols and insanitary hulks’. See: Three Amigos + One – Thomas Barrett

1788 – 10 March, Botany Bay: La Boussole, with gallant La Perouse at the helm, led L’Astrolabe out of Botany Bay for the voyage home, the Frenchmen were never seen again. See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies

As for the Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ they were left to starve 13,000 miles (21,000 km) from their homeland. See: Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove From January 1788 to July 1790

1788 – 13 March, Sydney Cove: As early as March; ‘the commissary made a deduction of 12 lb [5.5kg] per hundred weight [50.8kg] of [salted] beef and 8 lb [3.5kg] in the hundred weight of [salted] pork (i.e.100 lb of beef must be cut into 28 pieces, and 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces)’. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal

1788 – April: An inventory of livestock revealed; ‘ 7 horses, 2 bulls, 5 cows, 29 sheep, 19 goats, 74 pigs, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens and 5 rabbits’. Collins. ibid.

1788 – 15 May: All but one (1) cow and both bulls wandered off into the bush. The lone cow, separated from her companions, went mad was shot and eaten.

1790

1790 – 1 January, Sydney: ‘Since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth…we had been entirely cut off…in which long time no supplies from the intelligence of our friends and connections no communication whatever having passed with our native country.

 We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England…here on the summit of the hill [South Head] every morning from day-light until the sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon’. Tench. ibid.

1790 – 6 March, to Norfolk Island:  Governor Phillip with starvation looming, to save the Sydney settlement from complete disaster, evacuated 50% of ‘his people’ to Norfolk Island. HMS Sirius was to continue onto China and arrange rescue for the settlement.

HMS Sirius and HMS Supply with convicts, marines and supplies sailed for Norfolk Island in early March 1790. Governor Phillip took the opportunity to rid himself of the rebellious Major Robert Ross commander of the marines. See: Take Two – Rules of Engagement

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: Sirius had successfully landed her evacuees when caught in ‘surf which on every part of the coast beats against the shore with great violence’ she was driven onto a submerged reef. Stuck fast Sirius broke up over a number of days. Her crew one hundred and sixty (160) naval personnel were saved but stranded along with the evacuees.

1790 – 29 March, Sydney: HMS Supply was back in Sydney by the end of March with the terrible news, Sirius was lost and with her hope of a China rescue.

‘Our hopes are now almost vanished’. Reverend Richard Johnson, First Fleet Chaplain, cited Jack Egan, Buried Alive, Allen and Unwin, 1999

1790 – 17 April, Jakarta: With Sirius lost Governor Phillip had no alternative but send HMS Supply to Batavia, modern-day  Jakarta. There Lieutenant Henry Ball RN was to buy tons of food and medicines and hire a Dutch vessel to bring them to Sydney as soon as possible. See: Missing In Action HMS Sirius & HMS Supply

1790 – 3 June, South Head:  Six (6) weeks after Supply sailed for Jakarta ‘flag’s Up… pull away, my lads! she is from Old England’. A convict transport with two hundred and twenty-six (226) ‘useless’ female prisoners and eight (8) children.

While Juliana broke the ‘misery and horror’ of the settlement’s extreme isolation and mind-bending uncertainty aside from some sheep salvaged from HMS Guardianshe brought few supplies to a starving settlement where the weekly ration was well below subsistence level. See: Titanic – HMS Guardian – Australia’s Titanic

‘To every child more than eighteen months old [and] to every grown person…two & one-half pounds of pork, two & one half pounds of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease per week…under eighteenth months old, same quantity of rice and flour, and one pound of pork’. Tench. ibid 

1790 – 26/27/29 June:  The second fleet’s death ships Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize – reached Sydney by the end of June 1790 with mainly male convicts.

Of approximately one thousand (1000) prisoners embarked on these three (3) ships, one-quarter died during the voyage and a further 15% after landing in Sydney. Many survivors never fully recovered physically, mentally or morally. See: Britain’s Grim Armada – Dancing With Slavers – The Dead And The Living Dead

The second fleet also brought one hundred and fifteen (115) infantry officers and men of the New South Wales Corps whose task it was to prosecute the military campaign required to hold New Holland.

Lieutenant John Macarthur, one of their number, would act as a catalyst. He set in train actions that brought about the near destruction of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples. See: The Switch 1790 – Context War With France

1790 – October: HMS Supply returned from Jakarta with a severely depleted crew having lost many men to malaria.

1790 – 17 December, Sydney: Rapture – Waaksamheyd  the Dutch vessel chartered by Lieutenant Henry Ball RN arrived from Jakarta in mid December 1790 bringing tons of food and medicines. Her arrival however super-charged a change in the settlement’s dynamic.

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries…These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Law in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1995

Waaksamheyd brought possibilities – seizure and/or escape. Convict William Bryant a fisherman from Cornwell, was well acquainted with the ways of the sea approached Deter Smidt the Dutch ship’s master with an escape plan. Smidt was supportive he agreed to supply charts, compass and quadrant, guns and ammunition.

Most important of all, so they could cover their escape, Smidt gave Will Bryant his projected departure date – the end of March.

1791 – 28 March, Sydney: At midnight the eleven (11) ‘Botany Bay escapees’, as they became known, with muffled oars rowed silently out of Sydney Harbour at midnight on 28 March 1791 and made for Timor.

At dawn Deter Smidt guided Waaksamheyd down the harbour and set his course for Norfolk Island to take on Captain John Hunter RN and the stranded Sirius crew for their return to England.

1791

1791 – 21 September, Sydney: HMS Gorgan, a converted warship, reached Sydney Cove in September 1791. She carried few prisoners Captain John Parker’s principal task was to return the marines of Sydney’s ‘troubled’ garrison to England.

These troops, the military arm of the naval service had been integral to Britain’s invasion of New Holland in 1788. Overdue for repatriation most were overjoyed at the prospect of a safe return to their homeland.

Captain Parker prepared HMS Gorgan for a quick turn-around but many marines were still on Norfolk Island two (2) weeks sailing-time away. The tiny HMS Supply was sent to ferry them to Sydney.

1791 – May, Norfolk Island: Queen, a convict ship from Ireland arrived in May. After discharging her prisoners, Queen sailed to Norfolk Island and retrieved the remaining marines including the quarrelsome Major Robert Ross forever a thorn in Governor Phillip’s side.

1791 – 13 December, Sydney: With the exception of Marine Lieutenant George Johnston and a few rank and file, the entire marine garrison including wives and forty-six (46) children, began boarding HMS Gorgon.

1791 – 19 December, Africa: Gorgan sailed for England on 19 December 1791 with Captain Parker setting a course for the Cape of Good Hope via Cape Horn.

The voyage proved difficult. Ferocious winds broke spars and masts, ripped sails, snapped ropes and bones. As she sailed deep into the southern oceans Gorgan encountered ‘islands of ice’ and all on board endured freezing conditions.  

1792

1792 – 8 February, Cape Horn:  Early in February 1792 Gorgon rounded Cape Horn.

1792 – 11 March, Cape of Good Hope: A month after surviving the rigours of the Southern Oceans a relieved Captain Parker dropped anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town. Parker again hoped for a quick departure but once more it was not to be. The reason for the delay was  truly extraordinary.

1792 – 12 March:  Horssen a Dutch vessel arrived next day from Jakarta. On board was Mary Bryant with Charlotte who, a year earlier (March 1791), had escaped from Sydney Cove.

Then in quick succession came two (2) more Dutch vessels Hoonwey and Vreedenberg with more surviving escapees. For much of their time Mary and friends had been at Coupang, West Timor under control of cruel Edward Edwards RN Captain of HMS Pandora. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

‘I [Tench] could not but reflect with admiration at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight and confound human speculation’.

Taken off Hoonwey and Vreedenberg the newcomers joined Mary and Charlotte on Gorgan.  One James Martin, a tall dark-haired Irishman, wrote ‘we was well known by all the marine officers which was all glad that we have not perished at sea’.

It would be an understatement to say Captain Watkin Tench was gob-smacked when the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’ arrived at Cape Town, nor can there be doubt he related emotionally to their story of ‘hardship and difficulty’.

Captain Parker also took aboard William Millward, James Morrison, Peter  Haywood and William Muspratt four (4) Bounty mutineers Captain Edwards had taken prisoner at Tahiti.   

1792 – 6 April, Africa: HMS Gorgan sailed from Cape Town for England in April 1792. Mary Bryant had yet to face her worst nightmare. On the previous leg – Sydney to Cape Town – ice and cold had been the enemy but now, out of Africa towards England, it was ‘excessive heat’.

Marine Lieutenant Clark wrote; ‘hot as hell…playing the devil with the children’.

Ralph Clark was no disinterested observer he travelled with Mary Branham his ex-convict common-law wife and Alicia, their 18 months old daughter (named for Clark’s legal wife), together with William, her four (4) year old son, from a previous relationship. See: The Clue of the Scarlet Cloth

1792 – 2 May, Gorgan at sea:  Clark recorded the death of five (5) children; ‘the children are going very fast…another died on the 4th May, another on the 5th’.

1792 – 6 May:  At 4 am on May 6 Charlotte died in Mary Bryant’s arms. Clark attributed the toddler’s death to ‘excessive heat’. By the middle of the month two (2) more marine wives and nine (9) children were dead.

1792 – 18  June, England: Gorgan reached Portsmouth on 18 June 1792, the port from where five (5) years earlier – 13 May 1787 – convict Mary Bryant (Broad) guarded by marines of the Sydney Garrison, sailed for Botany Bay.

The Bounty mutineers were transferred to HMS Hector to await court-martial. Its result was in general held to be unfair. On Tahiti Millward and Burkett had fathered children with Ellison the youngest crew member they were the only ‘Bounty’ men executed, hanged from the yard-arm of HMS Brunswick at the end of October 1792.

1792 – 20 June, London: Meantime Mary with the four (4) surviving escapees were taken off Gorgan and lodged in Newgate gaol. They appeared before magistrate Nicholas Bond where Captain Edwards identified them as the ‘Botany Bay escapees’ he had arrested on Timor.

1792 – 7 July, Old Bailey: All the convict escapees from Botany Bay were charged with return ‘before expiry of sentence’ and remanded in custody to appear at the Old Bailey on 7 July 1792.

Since the Transportation Act Geo. I (1717[18], being found ‘at large within the kingdom before expiry of sentence’ attracted mandatory death. Mary now a childless widow was desolate; she was not however without friends.

It is not clear who – if anyone – approached James Boswell to defend the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’. Their extraordinary story alone may have aroused Boswell’s interest linked as it was to the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and wreck of HMS Pandora.

Certainly sensational stories of tyrannical Captain William Bligh RN, mutinous Lieutenant Fletcher Christian RN and cruel Captain Edward Edwards RN and the horrors of ‘Pandora’s Box’, filled London and provincial newspapers.

Boswell’s motivation may have sprung directly from these accounts. But it is also possible an interested party Captain Watkin Tench soon to publish his second Botany Bay book- Sydney’s First Four Years – may have prompted Boswell’s interest. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’.

There is however another possibility. HMS Gorgan had on board an object of ‘genius’. K-1 a pocket-watch, a faithful copy of John Harrison’s H-1 marine chronometer.

The ‘pocket-watch’ had been  given into the care of ‘First Fleet’ Marine Lieutenant William Dawes by Rev. Nevil Maskelyne Britain’s Astronomer Royal, and was now on its journey home to Greenwich Observatory where to this day it can be viewed ‘in [its] see-through cave’. See: Marine Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’    

EPILOGUE

In 2010 Cambridge University Press reprinted Mary Ann Parker’s A Voyage Round the World in the Gorgon Man of War. Parker’s book is an important addition to the canon of early women’s travel writing’.

Mary, widowed in 1795, wrote the memoir to support her family. Her observations give valuable insight into social divisions already glaringly obvious at the time of Gorgan’s Sydney’s visit – March 1791.

These divisions centred on Lieutenant John Macarthur of the New South Wales Infantry Corps who, together with Elizabeth his wife, arrived in June 1790 on the second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’.

Prejudice: Elizabeth’s attitude towards Mary Johnson, wife of ‘First Fleet’ Chaplain Richard Johnson, the only other woman in the tiny colony of similar station’ makes sickening. Her opinion Mary; ‘a person in whose society I could reap neither profit nor pleasure’. Early Records of the Macarthurs

‘Rumour is a pipe Blown by surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures’. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, 

Pride: John ‘MacMafia’ Macarthur’s pride was boundless. The ‘pipes’ of the teetotaller who put the ‘Rum’ into the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps were scurrilous. Macarthur was the common denominator in the downfall of Governor Phillip’s immediate successors the ‘autocratic naval governors’ – Captain John Hunter, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King and Captain William Bligh.

 See: Machiavellian Macarthur Post Governor Phillip

 

 

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